My alarm went off at 5:30am Sunday morning, and despite the hour I woke easily. The foggy haze of a night’s sleep lifted without argument, and the promise of the day ahead pressed me into clarity. Opening Day. Two words that bring to mind images of rebirth and possibility, celebration and pageantry. All the predicting and supposing of the preceding months would be disproved or vindicated, all the hopes and expectations of the fans heightened or dashed. Opening Day. The Bears were about to start their season and try to make their way back to the Super Bowl, and I was going to be there. But first I had to get there.
The beginning of our journey turned out to be an augury of the Bears running game on Sunday. Our every move was stopped, at every turn, we met an impasse. I was to meet up with friends at 6:30 to drive to Union Station in downtown LA and catch the 7:20 train to San Diego. By the time we’d shoved 6 adults (all over 5’9”) into one small sedan and gotten on the road, it was already 6:55. The station was 25 minutes away…if we broke a couple laws we might make it on time. The route seemed simple enough, get on the 101 and exit at Alameda; turn right at the station. Unfortunately, we quickly learned that all the major East/West streets between Venice and downtown were closed off for the LA Triathlon. We sped through side streets, blowing red lights and ignoring oncoming traffic, until we finally found access to the freeway. Letting out a collective sigh of relief, we turned onto the on-ramp, only to find a large construction vehicle with a “Lane Closed” sign on it blocking the entrance. 7am on a Sunday morning seemed to them a good time for construction, and we were told to wait 10-15 minutes before the ramp would be re-opened. 10-15 minutes we did not have. More illegalities as we reversed down the ramp and sped back the way we came, our driver seemingly drawing inspiration from the climactic car chase in Blues Brothers. 8 minutes later we were finally on the freeway, flying at 90 miles an hour, knees and arms shoved into the sides of the car, sure we weren’t gonna make it. We completed at least one-third of the previously mentioned triathlon at the station sprinting from the ticket kiosk to the train, putting to good use our authentic NFL game jerseys.
Once on the train, things settled down. Southern California flew by in a blur; an empty Angel Stadium, early morning surfers dotting the waves of Oceanside. Some of us slept, some played cards, all heckled or cheered the Chargers and Bears fans accordingly as they passed through our car. I may or may not have told an infant that I would be crying too if I had to wear a Chargers onesie. It’s all hearsay, really. On the trolley from the train station to the stadium we traded bad Bill Swerski impressions and started a rousing chorus of “Bear Down, Chicago Bears.” It felt more and more as if we’d taken a tiny seed of home and re-planted it across the country. Wandering around the parking lot, it became clear that thousands of other Bears fans had done just the same. While I did walk down a few aisles of mostly Chargers fans, there were just as many areas dominated by Bears fans. One wrong turn and I was jeered and shood away or, in one case, picked up against my will and paraded about by a shirtless, tubby man carrying a Chargers flag. One aisle over and I was given beers, offered marriage proposals, or handed Bears wristbands to wear proudly.
When game time came, we entered the stadium, small and plain but beautiful underneath the spate of sunlight from above. As the national anthem was sung and jets flew overhead, I imagined that every heart in the stadium couldn’t help but feel the same surge of pride and pure, simple happiness that mine did. Our seats were in the 9th row on the 40 yard line, behind the Chargers sideline, and we could see the smiles and growls of the players as the game began. It was a war of attrition, to be sure. Both defenses held strong, and it seemed a grave mistake would be the only way a team might score. The Chargers immediately turned to their MVP, LaDanian Tomlinson, going to him on all 6 plays of their first drive. The Bears defense was ready for the challenge, though, and would prove LT’s Nike commercial a far cry from reality. Both offenses struggled early, San Diego coming up with more first downs but hurting themselves with penalties. At the end of the first quarter the Bears blocked a 33 yard field goal attempt by Nate Kaeding and Mike Brown came up with an interception on the Chargers next drive to set up a field goal. Rex Grossman ruined the Bears best scoring chance, throwing an interception on what looked like a miscommunication with Bernard Berrian in the endzone. At halftime, the Bears led 3-0, and the defenses of both teams had established their dominance.
The 3rd quarter saw much of the same. LT struggled on the ground and the Chargers lost yards on penalties. The Bears offense was even more anemic, with Berrian’s receptions providing the only bright spot. Cedric Benson was unimpressive, reaffirming his status as a north-south runner with no burst speed and no highlight reel moves. He had one run in the first half that showed some promise—a nice push through the pack, taking tacklers with him to get the first down. He better do more of that the next game, because Chicago fans will jump all over him quickly if he fumbles again or proves as ineffective as he did Sunday.
At the end of the 3rd, San Diego got just the break they were looking for when the Bears fumbled a punt return, handing the ball over at their own 29. A few plays later LT’s halfback-option pass found Antonio Gates in the endzone to put the Chargers on the board and up 4. San Diego’s next, and only other score, came off another Chicago mistake. Adrian Peterson fumbled on the run—Chicago’s 4th turnover of the day—and the Chargers took advantage of an unrested Bears D with a 7 yard Tomlinson score. At the end of the day the Chargers won 14-3 in a game that hardly met up to the marquee matchup fans expected. The Bears held LT to just 25 yards on 17 carries and Philip Rivers, with no TDs, a fumble and a pick, wasn’t much better than Grossman,(though I’m sure he’ll get a lot less crap for it than Rexy will). In the end, the Bears defense gave the team a chance to win, but the offense couldn’t get it done.
So on a gorgeous sunny day in San Diego, the Bears opened up their season with a loss. I hate to see the team in the basement of the lowly NFC, and I hate to follow up last year’s 7-0 start with a 0-1 beginning. On the other hand, Seattle was the only decent team we faced early on last year, so our undefeated record wasn’t much of an indicator of our talent. Starting off with the Chargers, a favorite to get to the Super Bowl, will only help the team develop and improve. Jumping into the fire right away will do more for us in terms of preparing for big matchups than toasting the Lions or the Vikings would. I’m less worried about the loss of the game than I am about the loss of two of the Bears best defenders, Mike Brown and Dusty Dvoracek, for the season. Grossman, Benson, and our offense better step it up and put some points on the board or it’s gonna be a long season.